How true is the phrase “use it or lose it” when it comes to learned skills?

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Does the brain really forget skills permanently if you don’t use them?

In: Biology
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Popular Psychology has accepted the use-it-or-lose-it theory as fact; however, there are two variations of this theory: the cognitive reserve hypothesis and the use-dependency theory. [source](https://www.researchgate.net/publication/270876081_The_Use-It-Or-Lose-It_Theory_the_Cognitive_Reserve_Hypothesis_and_the_Use-Dependency_Theory_Methodological_Issues_Previous_Research_Current_Research_and_Future_Perspectives)

You can think of cognitive reserve as your brain’s ability to improvise and find alternate ways of getting a job done. Just like a powerful car that enables you to engage another gear and suddenly accelerate to avoid an obstacle, your brain can change the way it operates and thus make added resources available to cope with challenges. Cognitive reserve is developed by a lifetime of education and curiosity to help your brain better cope with any failures or declines it faces. [source](https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-is-cognitive-reserve)

The cognitive reserve hypothesis states that an individual must be relatively cognitively active throughout life (particularly in early life) in order to build up a cognitive reserve to counter cognitive decline in old age. The use-dependency theory asserts that a high level of cognitive activity in later life is sufficient to attenuate or even reverse the cognitive aging process. [source](https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/2021/)

Barring brain damage your neurons programmed with your conscious and subconscious memories of a particular task are still there. The problem is they’re not linked very strongly anymore with your current thoughts or environmental triggers.

The old saying is it’s like riding a bike – well I can attest to the fact that riding a bike is not like riding a bike – 5 years go by and you’re not exactly a newbie but you’re definitely have some relearning to do. As time goes by the neurons that you use regularly get strengthen and those that you don’t fade by comparison. And it’s likely that as you get on the bike the familiarity of the movement can trigger some of your old neural pathways but it’s also likely that newer memory clusters will keep overriding and essentially blocking access to some of your older memories. This leaves you with an incomplete picture – the result of which you need to make some new neuron pathways and relearn part of the skills involved in riding a bike. Also your muscles and nerves have likely physically altered in that intervening five years so even being able to access your old procedural memories you are still left with some fine tuning to link that to the present condition that your muscles and nerves are in.

As someone who recently started a job I haven’t done in ten years, the muscle memory is still there so your learning curve is shorter, but you still have to relearn the process. Said more concisely: lose it? No. You do have to relearn but the curve is significantly shorter.